Thursday, May 19, 2022

It's true what they say about Nome: The first winter is hard on relationships

It's not often that you get to read a novel set in Alaska by an writer who almost died in an Alaska plane crash but now tours the U.S. performing his music and reading his poetry and prose. One more thing -- the novel was published in India. Even in our interconnected world, working with a publisher on the other side of the world comes with its own set of challenges.  

"Now Entering Alaska Time" by Ken Waldman recounts the adventures (and misadventures) of a poet and fiddler named Zan. Raised in The Lower 48, Zan travels to Alaska and immerses himself in the folk music scene. He totes his fiddle wherever he goes. He eventually decides to get his graduate degree in creative writing and then embarks on a Nome teaching job where he teaches online classes to students around the state, from the Arctic Circle to softer climes in small towns near Juneau.

The book sometimes reads like a travelogue, so much so that I had to keep a map of Alaska close at hand. As is the case with most U.S. writers schooled in the West, place is crucial. You could say the same thing about writers from the South or the Midwest. But for writers in the West (Alaska included), sometimes we're more concerned with the spaces between than the places themselves. You can assume that those spaces represent the gaping chasms people experience in their relationships. 

That's the thing about Waldman's novel. His characters come together and tear asunder with stunning frequency. About as often as the next plane to Nome. That's how humans get around in Alaska, mainly by plane. Each of these locales (Nome, Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks) have distinctive personalities, illuminating to someone like me who's never been to Alaska. But as a writer in Wyoming, I am familiar with the wide open spaces. As literature coordinator for 25 years with the Wyoming Arts Council, I brought in writers from all over to judge our fellowship competitions. More than one of them asked me if writers had to write about the state's landscapes, you know, the mountains, the high desert, cottonwoods, the incessant wind. No, I would say, but all of those are facts of life here, ones you can't ignore. Landscape is a character.

Waldman prose doesn't have to remind the reader that it is cold and dreary during Nome winters. When Zan lands at the Nome airport to start his job, he remembers "the story of the young woman who had originally beat him for the position, flown here, and then turned right around." Later, when he wanders into downtown's Anchor Bar, he chats over drinks with jaded city manager Press Atwater. He warns Zan that Nome's first winter is hard on relationships. Months later, when he and Melinda see Press at his usual perch at the bar, he says: "Say, you two are still talking and it's been, what, two or three months already." He laughs. What else could he do? 

The novel's second half focuses on the relationship between Zan and Melinda. What a wild ride it is. Waldman does a fine job delineating their personalities and the stresses that sabotage relationships. The author paints a more complete portrait of Zan because, well, the novel is based on his own Alaska experience. We sometimes wonder about Melinda's motives, especially as she strays later in the relationship. I won't go any deeper than that because it's a powder keg of a relationship and I don't want to spoil anything. 

Waldman and I met several decades ago at what was then called the AWP Conference. We've worked together several times since. He's on the road most of the time now that Covid is winding down (we hope). The book tells me the roots of the author's itinerant lifestyle. He's still roaming the wide open spaces. It's in his blood. 

"Now Entering Alaska Time" will be available for $18 USD at after June 1. Waldman has launched a book tour with Alaska dates in Skagway, Haines, Juneau, Talkeetna, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Homer, and Denali Park. After that, he's in Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Texas. He performed at the first outdoor Anchorage Folk Festival this past weekend and returns June 5 for a folk festival fundraiser. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Happy graduation, Annie. You did it!

Annie Shay, happy graduate (LCCC photo)

Daughter Annie graduates from Laramie County Community College on Saturday.

We are so proud of her. It has been a long haul. She struggled with learning disabilities in elementary school. She was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was eight. During teen years, she struggled in school, the learning part and the socialization part. She began to depend on drugs and alcohol to get her through each day. She was bipolar and we sought help but nobody seemed to understand it. She spent months in treatment centers in Wyoming and Colorado. She was able to complete some of her school work but fell too far behind to graduate. She earned her G.E.D. and started school at LCCC. It was too soon. She decided to major in music and spent many hours rehearsing and singing with the school's choirs. She has a beautiful voice but is not so confident around colleagues and audiences. 

She dropped out and soon was off again to treatment centers, this time in California and Illinois and Utah and finally back to Colorado. The years passed. She was diagnosed with bipolar and personality disorder. Meds didn't seem to be the solution but she kept at it, finally underwent ECT at a hospital in Boulder. She improved and returned to Cheyenne to live with Chris and I and go back to school. 

Nevertheless, she persisted. 

That's one thing she always wanted -- an education. Through it all, she spoke of that often. She enrolled again at LCCC. She depended on the Help Center for guidance. She struggled at first. Nevertheless, she persisted. She passed her classes and discovered that she liked school, maybe for the first time. That's one thing that people don't always understand about community colleges. They allow all kinds of learners to get a second chance. May be you aren't ready at 18. Maybe you get married young and find out 20 years later that you want an education. Maybe you're a military veteran looking for new directions. 

I was a university dropout, a scholarship student at a big university who lost his way. I worked and traveled. Four years after graduating high school, I enrolled in the local community college and started in the fall of 1973. My classmates had already graduated from four-year universities and were negotiating adulthood. I felt a bit lost. But the classes I took were wonderful. Contemporary American Literature. Public Speaking. Art History. The teachers were terrific and somehow I was interested in each subject. At night, I worked as an orderly in the Substance Abuse Unit at the county hospital. The nurses locked me in with the alcoholics who had been scooped out of the gutters or arrested for raising a ruckus. This is where they came instead of jail. Many had been to jail. We played cards and smoked. They told tall tales, most of which were true, I suspect. I learned a lot. On quiet nights, I studied. On wild nights, we orderlies wrestled rowdy drunks. That was some year. By May, I had enough credits to graduate and returned to a four-year university where I graduated in two years. 

We all have our stories. Annie now has hers. She is very excited about graduating. So very excited. In mid-June, she moves to Laramie to start summer classes at UW.  She will be thirty-something by the time she graduates. She worries about that, wondering if she will fit in with younger students, make friends in the larger context of a university, be able to excel in upper division classes. Chris and I worry. Annie is an introvert with ongoing psychological issues. She likes her time alone but sometimes too much time alone is bad for her mental health. 

Nevertheless, she persisted. 

Happy graduation, Annie. Enjoy it all!

P.S.: Annie posted a blog today from her POV. Read "How I got here -- graduating from college class of 2022" at WyoGal. 

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Trees can soothe the beast of depression

Fun fact for Arbor Day: 

There are now 99 elms encircling the CSU Oval and lining its walkways.

So reports an April 2022 story on Colorado State University's web site, Literally just 46 facts about CSU's trees

Literally, it was interesting stuff. 

Here's a few other items from the CSU list:

When CSU was first founded 1870, it was located on a treeless prairie. 

Some of the [elm] trees are 80 to 90 feet high, and their roots are 1.5 times their height. 

This one is a surprise:

The Heritage Arboretum/Woody Plant Demonstration and Research Area has the largest collection of woody plants in the region, with more than 1,100 different taxa represented. 

The Arboretum is on the south end of campus, within shouting distance of the new stadium. It's surprising because I passed through this site many times during grad school and didn't know it was an arboretum. Time now for a return visit.

The Oval elms are special. During the spring and summer of 1991, as I worked on my M.F.A. in creative writing, I was gobsmacked by severe depression, I found solace among the elms. As noted, they are sturdy and tall, providing shade for the lawn and itinerant students who need some elm goodness to buck up their spirits. I would bike on over to the Oval, prop myself against a tree, read and study. The tree gave me strength. At the time, I thought they were cottonwoods but it didn't really matter. Trees carry energy and silently impart strength to those humans who take the time to appreciate them. I took antidepressants for the first time but it took a long time for them to work. Meanwhile, I had trees. 

I'd dealt with depression before. When I was an undergrad, a break-up caused me to go sleepless for a week. That was the first time I saw a therapist and talked it through. This was 1975 and pre-Prozac. I was 24 and pleased. I faced the beast and came out the better for it. 

During the next couple decades, I muddled through. Married, had a kid, worked various jobs in Denver until I went to school. After I turned 40, family issues took me back to therapy and anti-Ds. I kicked the drugs several times but the result was always the same. Finally, a psychiatrist in Cheyenne issued a mandate: You'll be on these the rest of your life. And, thus far, I have been.

While the meds percolate through my system, I walk among the trees. It's never been a mystery to me that elms and maples have healing qualities. Psychology Today writes about "Forest Bathing in Japan." Full immersion in the forest. PT referenced a 2012 Outside magazine first-person article by Florence Williams, Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning. Here's the subhead:

These days, screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside. Florence Williams travels to the deep woods of Japan, where researchers are backing up the theory that nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression—and even prevent cancer.

These days, I need assistance when walking. I'm missing out on forest bathing. But last time I was in the mountains, last September, I sat under pines as my family joined friends in a hike on Vedauwoo's Turtle Rock Trail. I'm usually the one leading these and may again if the docs can get to the bottom of my disability. I can park my rollator walker under any tree. And breathe deeply. 

Happy belated Arbor Day.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Nukes in the news -- again

Not enough people have seen "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

It's satire, sure, with a concept that a loony nuke base commander could trigger a nuclear war. General Jack D. Ripper is obsessed with Commies poisoning "our precious bodily fluids." His executive officer, a British captain, comes close to derailing the general's plans but, as we all know, close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and mega-kiloton atomic warheads.

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when, but I know we'll meet again some sunny day."

Dr. Strangelove's closing lines, sung by Vera Lynn as the Russians' Doomsday Machine causes bombs to go off all over the world.

That's all, folks!

The movie's over. We laugh. Shake our heads. Punch the remote to "Bridgerton."

The premise seemed ridiculous to moviegoers in 1964. It seems ridiculous again. But not quite so. There is an unhinged megalomaniac in Russia threatening to use nukes if the West doesn't stop arming Ukraine. 

"Dr. Strangelove" got its start with a novel, "Red Alert," by Peter George. It's a thriller. I read it as a teen, that and "Fail-Safe," co-written by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. Also, Nevil Shute's "On the Beach." I read about nuclear Armageddon. It seemed so far-fetched. At the same time, I was reading the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift series. They sparked my imagination, turning me into a lifelong fan of fiction. Tom Swift's dirigible/biplane hybrid ("Tom Swift and His Airship, or, The Stirring Cruise of the Red Cloud") seemed as real to me as nuke bombers and missiles that could incinerate the planet. I was lost in a fantastic world that I never really grew out of.

At the same time, my father worked on installing Atlas missiles in hardened silos from Washington state to Kansas (Wyoming too). He was a contract specialist, an accountant with Martin Co. (Martin-Marietta). He was charged with making sure that the missiles and their underground homes were built correctly and within budget. We moved around with Dad and his work. I never really thought about how his job might lead to a cataclysm. But he did. He recommended that I watch Strangelove and read World War III novels. He didn't talk much about his work but I know he wanted me to be a reader and an informed citizen. 

Our family got a lot out of the Cold War. It never was a hot war, as some predicted, but it shaped me. 

So now, when Putin mouths off about nukes, I hear General Jack D. Ripper. I should take the guy more seriously as I live in the crosshairs of Nuclear Alley here in southeast Wyoming. If MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) arrives, I will have precious little time to worry about it. I never really stopped worrying nor did I learn to love the bomb. 

I revel in its absurdity.

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when, but I know we'll meet again some sunny day."

Vera Lynn's singing takes us back to World War II. When Vera sang, British soldiers listened. They were in the fight of their lives around the globe. At home too, as Hitler waged a saturation bombing of a civilian population. Putin now saturates Ukraine with rockets and terror tactics. 

My father, a World War II G.I., liked Vera Lynn. Later, when I had a chance to think about it, I wondered if he minded that Vera Lynn's song had been used for a fiery conflagration that ended the world. He was especially fond of "The White Cliffs of Dover" which he must have heard many times in England as he trained for the Normandy invasion.


There'll be bluebirds over/the White Cliffs of Dover/tomorrow,/just you wait and see

And this:

There'll be love and laughter/and peace there after,/tomorrow,/when the world is free

There may be a song like this for Ukraine. There should be.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

420 Day in Wyoming feels a lot like Wednesday

Happy 420 Day. 

Stoners in Boulder, Colo., used to treat this day as a smoke-filled holiday, known for one of the biggest 420 fests in the U.S. Legalization arrived via the voters in 2012. There now are hundreds of  marijuana dispensaries in the first state to start selling legal recreational weed. 

Wyoming, on the other hand, well, Wyoming is Wyoming. It will be the last state to approve it. Meanwhile, liquor rules the land. Prohibition (1920-1933) was a joke in this state while the temperance types in Colorado got an early start by prohibiting booze in 1916. Ah, Colorado, our sober southern neighbor.

Bootleggers abounded in WYO border towns for thirsty Coloradoans, Utahans, Nebraskans, Dakotans, Montanans, and Idahoans. Moonshine was an export commodity long before fireworks and fresh-faced UW grads. You can visit museums around the state that feature well-preserved stills from the 1930s. Museum volunteers lecture school groups on the bad old days when everyone was stewed to the gills with illicit hooch. Look how far we’ve come! Wyoming has a huge alcohol abuse problem. It also had the second-highest number of teen drug arrests in 2016, topped only by neighbor South Dakota and a bit more than neighbor Nebraska. Here’s a recent headline from the Cowboy State Daily: “Fentanyl Deaths in Wyoming Increasing; Federal, State Officials Worried.” 

My drugs of choice these days tend to be heavy on the Zs: Prozac, Zyrtec, Mirtazapine, Zestril. This is what happens when you have depression, get carted away with a heart attack, and sneeze your head off from May through October. These meds are prescribed liberally by physicians and pharmacists. Drug company reps hand out free samples. They need to be used with care as they carry a list of side effects (some alarming) listed on the three-page printout you get with each prescription. Oxycontin and Fentanyl carry similar warnings which nobody reads.

I’m pleased that the medical establishment gives us info so we can make decisions about what to take and what to jettison. No such lists were issued with the recreation drugs of the 60s and 70s. Our parents knew nothing nor did any adult we depended on for advice which we readily ignored. I was thinking about this the other day. KUWR’s Wyoming Sounds’ Throwback Thursday featured Grady Kirkpatrick playing songs on the forbidden list issued by an Illinois state law enforcement agency in 1971. The songs allegedly encouraged the use of illegal drugs. They included PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON (Peter, Paul, and Mary), HI-DE-HO (Blood, Sweat, and Tears) AND LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS (Beatles). 

The list was probably inspired by Nixon’s War on Drugs. "Puff" was targeted due to the fact that marijuana cigarettes needed to be puffed in 1971 (no edibles or ganja-infused beer). Too many puffs and you saw magic dragons. Lucy was obviously an abbreviation for LSD which, if you had the good stuff, you would definitely see magic dragons, sea nymphs, and Jesus. I have it on good authority that some frat boys saw our savior after imbibing too much Purple Jesus punch, a once-popular grain alcohol/Hawaiian Punch mixture.

I don’t get why “Hi-De-Ho” is on the banned list. Some lyrics:

Hi de ho

Hi de hi

Gonna get me a piece of the sky

Gonna get me some of that old sweet roll

Singing hi de hi de hi de hi de hooooo.

I looked up the song, originally sung by Dusty Springfield. I don’t see the drug references. Sure, some druggies may be reaching for a piece of sky. And stoners might satisfy a craving with sweet rolls such as the frisbee-sized concoctions served at Johnson’s Corner truck stop in Colorado. But it’s a stretch.

Hi-De-Ho was a phrase used liberally by Cab Calloway. He may have smoked weed as musicians seemed to like their drugs in the Roaring 20s and the Pretty Exciting but Impoverished 30s. The police noted that hip musicians tended to be African-American and their music was enjoyed mostly by jitterbugging minorities. Go to YouTube and watch jitterbugging clips. You could be stoned making those moves but I have my doubts. The fast-paced dance featured jittery music and lots of throwing around partners’ bodies. One false move and your date could end up a bleeding and broken thing on the bandstand.

The dances I remember from high school were not complicated but needed a bit of sobriety to carry off. The dances I remember from 1970s rock concerts were as groovy and free-flowing as a 20-minute Grateful Dead jam.


Sunday, April 17, 2022

Outer Range, set in Wyoming, asks the question: "What is that weird hole doing in my pasture?"

I saw Josh Brolin on Stephen Colbert this past week. He was promoting his new Amazon Prime series “Outer Range.” He said it was part contemporary western and part supernatural thriller. I am all for new takes on old themes, especially if they focus on the West. Streaming services have brought us “Yellowstone,” “1883,” and “Longmire.” Wyoming and vicinity are the setting for a lot of them. They are not filmed in the state (New Mexico and Alberta get the honors) but were created by Wyomingites C.J. Box and Craig Johnson, among others. “Outer Range” is set in fictional Amelia County, Wyoming, making it county number 25 after Johnson’s county 24, fictional Absaroka County. “Longmire” fans convene every summer in the very real town of Buffalo in Johnson County. I just read some interesting and not entirely complimentary stuff about the area in Helena Huntington Smith's 1966 book “The War on Powder River: The History of an Insurrection.”

In “Outer Range,” an evil cattle baron named Wayne Tillerson, most likely a descendant of one of the bad guys in the Johnson County War, is trying to steal prime land from a neighboring cattle baron (Royal “Roy” Abbott) who is burdened with debts, a dysfunctional family, and a bottomless hole the size of a barn in one of his pastures. The hole makes ethereal noises and, if you should fall in it, you will receive visions of the past and future before the hole spits you back out. An American bison, two arrows jutting from his hide, stands by the hole and snorts.

This is not your granddaddy’s ranch.

The most interesting part of the first two episodes is a showdown between Wayne and Royal. In the olden days, a couple shots of red-eye, six-guns and a dusty street would be involved. In 2022, Dwayne is a bed-ridden invalid who wears his cowboy hat in bed. His drink of choice is Clamato juice. Royal confronts him over the land grab. Here’s their exchange:

Wayne: Roy, you’re on my land (sips Clamato juice on ice)

Royal: Let’s be honest here Wayne, no one’s stealing anything but you.

Wayne: This is Wyoming, Roy. It’s only ever been stoled since the day it got its name (knocks back the rest of the Clamato).

Roy leaves, noting that the lawyers will have to figure this out.

I had to rewind several times to get down this exchange. Wayne’s lines may be the best since Owen Wister's Virginian told Trampas, “When you call me that, smile.”

I am a fan of western movies. I gravitate to quirky westerns such as “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “High Noon,” "True Grit," and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” I like the classics too. That includes anything by John Ford. Just watched the original “Stagecoach” on Netflix. During the pandemic, I finally watched “Lonesome Dove” and loved it.

I will watch the rest of “Outer Range.” The big hole on the prairie intrigues me. I like Josh Brolin and his gruff portrayals (remember “No Country for Old Men?”). There’s some weird details in the script (Clamato?) and I like weird details. Must be the Irish in me.

Monday, April 11, 2022

"Death Cleaning" is as pleasant as it sounds

The April 9 New York Times op-ed section featured a piece with this heading: " 'Death Cleaning': A Reckoning With Clutter, Grief and Memories." There were letters from more than 500 responses from the paper's request for personal stories about getting rid of a lifetime of possessions or those of a relative.

Responses were interesting and heartbreaking. Chris and I, both retired, have decided to clean out the clutter of our own lives as we contemplate a move to a retirement community. Her approach is "everything must go" and mine is "almost everything." This reveals the difference in our backgrounds. She is adopted, an army brat with one sister (also adopted) who had to help her mother purge much stuff for many moves. I am the oldest of nine. During our childhood, we moved quite a few times and, in adulthood, we've moved more that Chris's sister and her Navy lifer husband. We've done some purging over the years. Yet, now, we still have an entire household of stuff. We've lived here for 16 years. I look around my writing room and see photos of my kids at various stages and family photos of relatives. Books and papers are piled on every surface. And this is the tip of the iceberg. I have bookshelves filled with books and boxes upon boxes of books in the basement. 

When Chris retired a year ago, she embarked on a cleaning binge monumental in scale. Everything must go! And much did. A local nonprofit removed most of the furniture from the basement. We donated three sets of china to Goodwill, sparing boxes of teacups and saucers that went to the local botanic gardens for its Mother's Day teas. We remodeled our upstairs bathroom and redid the kitchen floor. Chris called the junkman who came and removed old lawnmowers and tools from the storage shed, even had them remove an old storage shed that was home to items dating back to the previous owner. She ripped up all of the carpets and exposed our very nice wood floors. 

Since I am partially disabled, I was tasked with sorting through books. How I sorted. Our daughter hauled a dozen boxes out the door to the library sales room where she volunteers. Still, many books remain. 

I also have two large plastic bins with dozens of journals dating back to 1972. I was going to donate them to my kids, both dedicated readers who like to write, and hope they would find some lasting value in them. I lasted one day reading through my life, gave up, and put the bins back in the closet. It's quite sobering to contemplate a life. Most entries are mundane, even boring. Some are embarrassing. I decided that the journals have to go but not yet, as I have more reminiscing to do. How long will I procrastinate? Until I am unable? Not exactly what I had in mind for my kids. And not what they had in mind either. 

I did not have to sort through my parents' goods. I lived far away at the time and my siblings took care of it. My mother died at 59 of ovarian cancer and my grieving father called in my four sisters to go through her things and they did it cordially. I inherited a third of my accountant father's library and all of his clothes as we were the same size. I still wear his Aran Islands sweater. My father bought it in Ireland and rarely has occasion to wear it in Central Florida. I live in Wyoming so the sweater is my friend most times of the year. I wear his sport coats and they will undoubtably go to Goodwill when the time comes. 

The books and the journals -- those are the sticking points in our Death Cleaning saga.